Last April, Antoine Bethea and about a dozen of his teammates watched on television as Howard defensive back Ronald Bartell Jr. became the highest NFL draft pick in school history.
A few weeks later, Bethea and his friends received a more visceral look at Bartell's life as a St. Louis Rams second-round pick: The cornerback took his friends for a celebratory trip to a local nightclub in a new Hummer H2 sport-utility vehicle.
Bethea -- a 5-foot-11, 193-pound safety who has led the Bison in tackles two straight years -- shies away from the NFL talk that is now creeping in his direction, saying he is focused on helping Howard win its first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title since 1993 and will play the same way he has always played. But that doesn't stop his teammates from insisting that the two-time all-MEAC selection will soon get a chance to replicate Bartell's passage.
"No question, no question," said defensive tackle Jesse Hayes, who has played with Bethea, Bartell and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Tracy White. "I think he might feel a little pressure, that maybe he's got to live up to what Bartell did. But Bethea's his own football player. If anything, he's probably the best football player I've seen come through here."
Which is striking for several reasons, not least that Bethea's high school coach tried to dissuade him from even attempting the sport. When the skinny 5-foot-8 freshman approached the coaches at Newport News's Denbigh High, "we kind of looked at him and laughed," said former Denbigh coach A.C. Cauthorn, who is now Howard's offensive coordinator. "He was the guy that you just said, 'No way you're a football player, son -- you're gonna get hurt.' "
But Bethea persisted, spending two seasons on junior varsity and then sprouting during his last two years. By then it was too late to attract a Division I-A scholarship, Cauthorn said, and Bethea landed at Howard.
He was a reserve as a freshman, and took over for Brian Johnson after the latter pulled a hamstring during Howard's 2003 season opener. Bethea started the next game and had eight tackles, a sack, three fumble recoveries and a touchdown. He has started every game since. In his 21 starts, he has forced five fumbles and recovered five fumbles, leaving teammates marveling at his nose for the ball.
"I don't care if he's 20 yards from the quarterback," Howard quarterback Ronald Venters said. "If the quarterback fumbles the ball, somehow he's there."
Bethea also led the Bison with three interceptions last year, although at least six or seven more sailed through his hands. That led to a series of summer drills with receivers and quarterbacks in which Bethea worked on what coaches said is his only major flaw. His knack for the ball is so striking, they said, that NFL scouts watching tape of Bartell inevitably asked Howard's coaches, "Who the hell is number two?" according to Cauthorn.
"It's very hard not to see Bethea on film," defensive backs coach Ron Bolton said, "because he's always around the football."
Bolton, who spent 11 years in the NFL, has been meeting with Bethea to talk about the pros, telling him, "You belong; you can play at that level. You have all the things that it takes to be there and you have to believe that."
Bethea said he has followed Bartell's progress this summer largely on the Internet, not wanting to bother his friend during training camp. He is happy Bartell made the leap, calling him "big, fast, strong -- a prototype dude for the NFL." And although Howard's coaches said about 10 NFL teams have already asked to look at tape of Bethea, the safety is trying not to worry about the future.
"I have to wait for my turn," Bethea said, "and hopefully this year will be my turn."